Showing posts with label ENO. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ENO. Show all posts

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Ed is leaving ENO...

Sobs in sunny Sheen today upon the news that Edward Gardner is leaving English National Opera. The highlights of his stint as music director have been many and various - I'd pick out his Der Rosenkavalier, The Flying Dutchman, Wozzeck and The Damnation of Faust, to name but a few, as some of the most exciting operatic treats of the past several years. The vitality, intelligence and sheer electric delight of his music-making have never failed to light up the Coliseum. The job now passes not to another young whizz-kid (Ed was 31 when appointed), but to Mark Wigglesworth: a tried, tested, known, solid, liked and respected British musician, who will probably do a jolly good job. Ed, though, is off to Bergen, which unfortunately is in Norway and not accessible via the District Line. Excuse me while I go and have a howl.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

ENO goes to the cinema, finally

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. After a few years of resistance to the craze for live opera relays to the cinema, ENO has at last stepped aboard the bandwagon. From February you'll be able to see some of their productions at your local - starting with Peter Grimes starring Stuart Skelton, and subsequently the director Terry Gilliam's return visit to Berlioz, his new staging of Benvenuto Cellini. Expect five or six per season from next September. It seems they're finally convinced that it will widen their audience rather than dilute it. Hooray.

Below is the press release.

(If you were expecting a review of the Royal Opera's Parsifal from me this morning, I have to ask you to be a little patient - I am still digesting something resembling a curate's egg cooked by Heston Blumenthal...)




English National Opera (ENO) and AltiveMedia have today (Thursday 12 December) launched ENO Screen – a partnership to broadcast ENO’s unique theatrical productions to 300 cinemas across the UK and Ireland and selected cinemas worldwide, extending the opportunity to see the most innovative contemporary opera in the world to audiences around the world.
ENO Screen will begin with live screenings of David Alden’s award-winning production of Britten’s Peter Grimes, starring Stuart Skelton as the ostracised fisherman, on 23 February 2014 and the new production of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, based on the colourful life of the 16th century Italian goldsmith and sculptor, directed by Monty Python legend Terry Gilliam in June. From autumn 2014, live screenings will extend to five or six productions a season.
Speaking of the new venture, ENO Artistic Director John Berry said: “ENO's entry into cinemas will be as distinctive as our live work in the theatre, creating a truly cinematic experience. Our productions are already seen worldwide in more than 30 cities and I believe that the cinema broadcasts will enable many more people to enjoy the excitement and passion of ENO’s work and will encourage those visiting London to come to the theatre and see an ENO opera first hand.
“We have thought hard about whether to expand our activities into cinema and I believe in AltiveMedia we have now found the right partner to capture and promote ENO’s unique artistic personality in an exciting and dynamic way.
Peter Grimes is a definitive work in ENO's history and has proven to be one of our trail-blazing productions of recent years. It’s a wonderful way to launch this new initiative so close to Benjamin Britten's centenary year.”
Craig Shurn, Managing Director of AltiveMedia, said: “We have a first class technical and creative team who will ensure this will be an amazing spectacle that shows off ENO at its very best.
“We felt that the opera offering in cinemas was incomplete without ENO’s unique take, so we’re delighted to be working with ENO to bring the most innovative, stunning productions of their type to the big screen. We’ll be reaching out to those who already love opera and to people who have never tried it before, helping to build on the growing demand for this kind of quality entertainment.”
ENO Screen broadcasts will be produced by Serpent Productions, led by MTV award-winning director and Grammy award nominee Andy Morahan and Producer Dione Orrom.

Friday, November 08, 2013

McBurney's Mozart is a Flute for our times

Before we get down to business with Simon McBurney's production of The Magic Flute, here's 2 1/2p about opera in translation. The raison d'etre of ENO is to perform opera in the vernacular. But London today is such a cosmopolitan city that the concept is starting to look outdated. Yesterday The Magic Flute was in English; but the main language in the foyer seemed to be Hungarian.

That was because the holder of ENO's Mackerras Conducting Fellowship was on the podium for a performance for the first time: Gergely Madaras, 28, from Budapest. He has been working at ENO alongside Ed Gardner, being mentored and nurtured. Perhaps The Magic Flute isn't an ideal debut opera - but his conducting was full of vim and whoosh, extremely alive, well-balanced and tender-hearted. It took a little while to "settle" - there were one or two little disagreements over tempo between pit and stage, and a few moments needed a tad more time to breathe. But that will go, in due course, and on the whole Madaras seems a careful accompanist and a fine, full-spirited musician. I look forward to hearing more of him.

So to Flute - a production on which many expectations hang, since it replaces Nicholas Hytner's classic of 25 years or more. It could scarcely be more different. And it could scarcely be more enchanting, more contemporary, more inspired. Flute has been my most-loved opera since childhood, yet I found things in it yesterday that I've never seen or heard before, in the best possible way.

It has been described as the most demanding production ENO has yet staged. Sometimes its effects are stunning: the writhing snake that attacks Tamino is filmed and projected around him; and during the trials the prince and princess swim through a mid-air, hand-drawn spiral, as if starring in Titanic (above). The Temple of Reason emerges from a shelf of giant books; their pages become Papageno's fluttering birds, wielded by 14 actors (below). The Queen of the Night - confined for much of the show to a wheelchair - sings amid a breathing, trembling aura of stars. Moreover, much action takes place on a platform that swings, dips and tips, leaving the singers to balance, pace, slide when necessary and, of course, sing some jolly demanding music throughout - which they managed without the merest flinch.

McBurney was new to opera when he directed the massively successful A Dog's Heart for ENO a few years ago; this is his first classic. A fascinating interview in The Guardian makes the following suggestion: "I want...to take the audience from darkness to light, to make us evolve, to end mystification and embrace reason and rationality. That, as I understand it, is what the opera is about."

It is indeed, and McBurney's staging makes its message one for today, "relevant" in a way that is revelatory and profound rather than contrived. Indeed, we've rarely needed that message as much as we do now. It's as if Mozart himself is speaking to us as spiritual leader, as prophet.

The opera has been divested of its racism and as much of its sexism as possible, and - dare I say - is the better for it. The world that the characters move in is profoundly dangerous, riven by war, delusion, superstition; the plea is for wisdom, love, enlightenment. Everything feels here and now; the crisis of humanity of which Sarastro speaks is our own; everything seems real, the more apparently illogical the truer to life - and, moreover, true to the timeless heart of Mozart's vision.

[Dear Simon, please will you do Parsifal next, then the Ring cycle? Lots of love, Jess x.] 

In this process of "becoming"; everyone evolves, not only Tamino in his quest for initiation or Pamina in her growth from projected image - literally shining onto Tamino's heart while he sings his great aria - to mature and devoted woman. The magic instruments are played by members of the orchestra, the flautist walking on stage to stand alongside Tamino, the magic bells rendered on a keyboard from a corner of the pit where Papageno can interact suitably (the orchestra is raised so that it is just a notch below the stage).

But Papageno gradually learns to play them himself. Unpacking his parcel of food and wine, he creates a row of bottles which he empties - and in one case, er, fills - to reach the right pitch, and uses them to accompany the start of 'Ein mädchen oder weibchen'. "My old friend Chateauneuf du Pape..." he quips, then wonders if his "friend"'s family is present. Sure enough, inside the basket he finds more bottles. "Ahh, here's Auntie Angela and Uncle Roberto. Better keep those two apart!" - with which he places them at either end of the row. (Apologies to my neighbours in the theatre - I may have squawked...) Anyhow, by the time we get to 'Klinge, glöckchen, klinge', Papageno can tickle the ivories perfectly well and the keyboard player, striding on stage to be his sidekick, is put out to find her services aren't required.

Major plaudits to a terrific cast. Ben Johnson is a superb Tamino - his voice better suited to this role than it was to Alfredo in La Traviata - open-toned, focused and deeply musical. Devon Guthrie's feisty, heart-breaking Pamina matched him turn for turn. Roland Wood's Papageno - from Blackburn? - was a delight. McBurney has him carting a ladder around and from time to time he climbs it to escape something that alarms him, as if fleeing from a mouse. The introduction of a cuckoo noise into his first aria is naughty and rather delicious. James Creswell is an ideal Sarastro and Cornelia Götz a mostly strong Queen of the Night - and I love it that she is redeemed at the conclusion. Pamina doesn't often get her mother back.

Just one other perennial bugbear. The orchestra plays in that contemporary, standardised, "listen!-we-play-18th-century-music-without-vibrato" sound that always has been at odds with that of the human voice, and will always remain so.

In 100 years' time, assuming anyone still remembers who Mozart was, some scholar, assuming scholars still exist, may undertake a research project, assuming research still exists, about The Magic Flute. Of course they will be shocked to see the long hushed-up original text. But where the music is concerned, they might try a daring experiment: have the strings play with vibrato, just once, just to see what happens. And they will be astonished by how beautiful it sounds. And they will look at our generations' reasons for stopping the vibrato. And they will laugh.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Walt Disney and the Wallbangers

Philip Glass's The Perfect American opens tonight at ENO - UK premiere following world premiere in Madrid a few months ago - and I've done a preview for The Independent, which you can read here.

The title role is sung by Christopher Purves (left, as Disney), who started off as a choral scholar at King's College, Cambridge - then joined Harvey and the Wallbangers. He's since become one of the best British baritones around, a larger-than-life character with a wonderful warmth to his voice, all of which make him well-suited to roles like Falstaff, Mephistopheles - and Walt Disney. But I well remember the fuss when I started at uni in the mid 80s about the choral scholar who'd run away with a then-very-popular-in-Cambridge band, so I couldn't resist asking him about it.

Listen to a very short clip of them here with Chris singing the lead vocal in Old Man River...



"I knew I wanted to do something in music but I wasn’t sure absolutely what," Chris says. "I’d been in the King's Choir from 80 to 83 so was fairly well steeped in the choral tradition and I knew I didn’t really want to do that after I graduated. So, when Harvey suggested 'Would you like the join the Wallbangers?' I thought 'Why not? It’s different.' 

"If you remember, it was relatively theatrical and therefore slightly akin to what I do now - it’s not so far removed, even if the vocal production is different. I think I always knew deep down that opera was something that suited my character and my musical taste. I’ve always wanted to do something to communicate with music and that’s what I do. Either you do it in a pop way or an operatic way, and I’ve managed to do both, so I think I’m OK!"

Very much OK, Chris. Toitoitoi for this evening.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Wozzeck comes home



"Welcome back, boys." Wozzeck and his captain are centre stage in the pub. The first is nervous, surly, moving too fast, the latter a restless, cruel, distracted druggie. To the right, a coffin draped in a Union Jack doubles up as a table on which to rest beer glasses, plus green toy T-rexes that are being stuffed with bags of drugs. To the left, a staircase; and phantoms, silent ghosts in army gear - not too many, just an occasional reminder, occasionally carrying the corpse of a child. Upstairs, Andres, an amputee in a wheelchair; and Marie in her kitchen, seizing what brightness she can find in the earrings the Drum Major brings her in return for sex.

Wozzeck is based on a play from the early 19th century - an incomplete manuscript that was apparently retrieved from Georg Büchner's coat pocket after the young writer's untimely death, the words in faded ink all but illegible. Yet nearly 200 years later it feels as real as ever. Add a 21st-century perspective on PTSD and the poverty plight that so often faces returning servicemen, many of them deeply scarred physically and mentally, and Wozzeck is a tale of today. ENO's new production by Carrie Cracknell (of the Young Vic) goes for the jugular and twists the knife in it, hard.

So, too, Berg's music. Is this the opera we can't get past? Berg died in 1935, but you can still feel his musical shadow in countless new works; his blend of rigorous structure, contemporary language and heightened emotion has proved - like all the greatest music - both of its time and timeless. Many composers over the decades have wanted to write like Berg. Few have managed to, if any. Ed Gardner and the ENO orchestra, in white-hot form, underscore tragedy with sensitivity, letting the voices shine and the words - a fine, natural-sounding translation by Richard Stokes - come over clear as the daylight that's absent from Wozzeck's world.

Leigh Melrose is a heartbreaking, vulnerable Wozzeck, Sara Jakubiak a strong-voiced, clear-toned Marie. Tom Randle is the Captain, all too believable, and James Morris is inspired casting as the manipulative, sadistic and drug-dealing Doctor. Nobody is sympathetic - yet in this vividly evoked world, everybody is.

Like Anna Picard, writing in the Indy on Sunday, I've met returning ex-servicemen in dire straits. Perhaps by now most of us have. I was waiting for a train in a suburban station a year or two ago when one of them sat down on the bench beside me and started to talk about Afghanistan. It was night, but he was wearing dark glasses. His eyes had been full of sand, and were permanently damaged by it. He took the glasses off to show me, but the image that lingers was not the reddened whites; it was the shattered soul behind them. Hardest part was seeing your best mates killed, he said... His tale was a litany of suffering and destruction. But then, as my train arrived, he told me he'd do it all again. Queen and country, or something like that. He believed they were doing the right thing.

It's one small step from there to Carrie Cracknell's Wozzeck. Get to ENO and see it.


Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Sunday round-up

The trouble with burning the candle at both ends is that while you're out and about, you're not writing. Therefore JDCMB is a little bit late with what follows.

Leif Ove Andsnes gave the same programme twice at the Wigmore Hall last week; I attended on the second night (11 April). Not sure what's with Beethoven Op.101 this season, but this was the fourth time I've bumped into it since October; this time it joined a mixed programme including Beethoven's Op.54, Bartok's Suite Op 14, an all-too-rare rendition of Liszt's 'Pensées des morts' from the Harmonies poetiques et religieuses and Chopin's C minor Nocturne and Fourth Ballade.

Andsnes has one of the most sheerly beautiful sounds to be found on today's pianistic platforms; a super-cool customer, personable and unpretentious, he plays as if in a trance, cocooned at the piano in a world of his own. There's an almost scary perfection about him - a sole wrong note came almost as a relief, as if to say, "ah, this guy is human after all". Yet it can be flummoxing to hear the rugged Op.101 and the ferocious folksiness of the Bartok sounding as smooth as butter and the Chopin Ballade so precisely navigated that there seemed little time to "stop and smell the flowers". That exquisite moment when Chopin enters an hypnotic state of enchantment - spinning out a few bars of melody over four-against-three ripples in an aural-optical illusion - disappeared into its own notes with no time to catch the light and shine.

Nevertheless, the C minor Nocturne, its melody shaped with microscopically precise sensitivity and beauty, giving way to a mingling of chorale and octave storms that sends the cantilena into a fever of overturned emotion, was perhaps the high point of the concert. A treat and a half to hear such playing at close quarters rather than in the huge RFH.

Sunken Garden, ENO's world premiere from Grawemeyer Award-winning composer Michel van der Aa, took over the Barbican Theatre for a week.

Opera in 3D? Korngold once said, when he went to Hollywood, that some day whole operas might be written for the big screen; and here it was, with knobs on; one such knob being 3D specs that can be worn over your normal specs (v useful). As a 21st-century way of conceiving a musical stage work, mingling live performance with pre-recorded film including holograms of several singers who do not appear in the flesh, but with which the on-stage singers must interact, it's a presentation that needs - and received - the slickest and cleverest of integration in performance.

Responses have ranged from "this is the future", downwards. Several concerns. First of all, this opera has much in common with many "traditional" operas in that its story is so convoluted, and the enunciation of the (amplified) singers so unclear (except for the excellent Roderick Williams) that it was next to impossible to work out what was actually going on. Themes of conscience, cot death, euthanasia, afterlife, Dr Who-like self-projections, mystical oneness with the planet (think parachuting - but why?) - all mingle in David Mitchell's imaginative yet overstuffed libretto. We enter the Sunken Garden - actually the Eden Project - through a door under a motorway and find ourselves in limbo with some lost souls and an evil, or not, mastermind, or... hmm.

While the music undoubtedly has its moments - such as some memorable effects achieved by layering repetitive snatches of film and matching soundtracks - the number one requirement for a successful opera is that the music should be the best bit; the words should provide the runway from which it can take off and fly. Perhaps Sunken Garden's chief problem is that it is so busy dazzling us with its special visual effects that the aural element begins, inadvertently, to take second place. It is all hugely inventive and ground-breaking, significant indeed for the future of opera, yet not wholly successful in its own right.

The following night, Rustem Hayroudinoff played at St John's Smith Square, in an evening that had a fraction of the audience yet twice the impact (at least for us pianophiles). Rarely do you see the entire listening assemblage jump to its feet at the final note. This one did. The Rachmaninov Piano Sonata No.1 is rarely performed - probably because it is too difficult. It's a Faust Symphony for one instrument and ten fingers, and there is more extraordinary music in a single bar of it than in certain entire evenings of...well, you get the idea.

Rachmaninov weaves the work from a range of symbolic leitmotifs for different aspects of Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles (helpfully illustrated by Hayroudinoff in his spoken introduction). These pianistic textures would sound as complex on a 100-piece orchestra. As a feat of out-and-out virtuosity it is unremitting, indeed mind-boggling; but to deliver the wild flights of Rachmaninov's imagination with such colour, fidelity, rigour, fire and serious bedazzlement is a phenomenal achievement. Hayroudinoff's performance brought back to life the grand Chaliapin-inflected Russian style, with a depth of perspective in the voicing that was more convincingly 3D than anything we saw in that physically 3D opera.

If someone doesn't frogmarch him into a recording studio and insist that he records this gargantuan piece to add to his impressive roster of benchmark, award-shortlisted Rachmaninov discs, then those of us who were there last Saturday will simply have to throw tantrums until they do. Oh, and he also played some extremely fine Bach and Liszt - the small matter of the Second Partita and the Mephisto Waltz No.1 and more.

What price trouser-pressed perfection? What price technological novelty? All you need is one person, one instrument, music of genius and a performance infused with the fire of absolute inspiration, awareness and understanding. That is worth ten, probably a hundred, of anything else. That's what the musical experience is all about.

And with that little piece of profundity for a Sunday afternoon, I'm off to hear Jonas Kaufmann at the RFH.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Another 2 1/2p on the ENO issue

My interview with English National Opera's artistic director, John Berry, attempted to address a few tough questions. The company has won every award in town. It has also turned out to have a £2.2m deficit for the 2011-12 financial year. The piece is in The Independent, here.

[Above: Ed Lyon and Roderick Williams in the Oliver Award-winning Castor and Pollux.]

Time to reflect a little...

Reactions to my article via Twitter were intriguing. I have the impression that some read in it only what they wanted to read, which is normal enough, but means that false impressions may have circulated. Right at the start I ask whether ENO has been flying too close to the sun - all those awards, all those new, risky productions. Obviously, the answer is yes. John Berry does acknowledge that perhaps mistakes were made, admitting that with hindsight perhaps they should not have done Weinberg's The Passenger or Glanert's Caligula. He doesn't "blame the audience", as one or two people muttered; he says, of The Passenger, "...but I couldn't sell it." He does acknowledge that there is a price-tag in taking risks, saying that he has no choice now but to "rebalance" the programme; and he also makes the point that the international co-productions that are the chief focus of this article enable the staging of work that ENO could never have afforded on its own.

Naturally the economic climate is nasty and the combination of that with the £1.3m cut in ENO's ACE grant accounts for a large proportion of the problem, but that isn't all there is to it. Some question why ENO has such a big a deficit when other artistic institutions don't. Clearly, a strategy of artistic risk that's then whacked with a massive grant cut is a kind of "perfect storm". But also, sadly, it's only a matter of time - and probably not all that much of it - until other institutions find themselves in the same boat. ENO is merely the first. (I lived through the '80s: been there, seen it all before, bought the t-shirt, now using it as a mop.)

Perhaps ENO is in a kind of double-bind with its international co-productions. Ingrained tastes in audiences vary a great deal from country to country, even from city to city. So, if you're going to produce an opera in collaboration with a place that is used to pushing the boat out in terms of directorial concept, it may not go down especially well with UK audiences, and you can probably forget it in America. (ENO is not the only place that's come up against this: think of "that" Rusalka last year at Covent Garden.) Perhaps that is why the Met is the most frequent of ENO's co-producers; a beautiful Satyagraha; a Klinghoffer [above] that was sensitive and visually striking; but a comparatively dreary Gounod Faust that was not very interesting at all.

I put the question of varying audience tastes to Berry. He defended his decisions, as you'd expect, and it's only fair that he should have the chance to do so. He pointed out that British creative work, this way, is exported and showcased all over the world. Yesterday someone asked where the singers are in all this. They don't usually do the travelling... In that Faust, we had the very fine Toby Spence. At the Met, they had Jonas Kaufmann.

Without those partnerships, and without a strong artistic vision, we might risk being reduced to wall-to-wall Gubbay-style Butterflies and Carmens, because there wouldn't be enough money for anything else. But the fact remains that "Eurotrash" productions have never been favourites with British audiences, yet houses in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Spain and elsewhere want them, expect them, encourage them. Essentially: you could be stuffed if you do them and stuffed if you don't.

On the other hand, even an old favourite like Nicholas Hytner's perennial production of The Magic Flute was not particularly full when I attended a few months ago; it's beautiful, but has been very thoroughly seen. A new one by a top director (there are rumours of Simon McBurney) with performance to match might draw the audience much more.

But here's another thought: as one canny "tweep" mentioned, it's the music that sells opera. Last year's ENO Rosenkavalier, in the staging by David McVicar, was as glorious a performance vocally and musically as anyone could have wished, with Ed Gardner going great guns in the pit and a cast consisting of Amanda Roocroft, Sarah Connolly and Sophie Bevan, with John Tomlinson as Baron Ochs [left: Tomlinson & Connolly]. It was outstanding. It was unforgettable. I've been stirred, shaken and overjoyed by many, many performances I heard there last year. Gardner's conducting in The Flying Dutchman; Peter Hoare singing in Martinu's amazing Julietta; the list could go on and on. Under Gardner's music directorship, the standard has shot up to a whole new level, and there have been some terrific decisions in the casting department.

Are there solutions to the financial woes? As Berry is the first to admit, there will have to be a "rebalancing" of the programme, and one suspects that various structures in the company's operation will need a long, hard look: ticket pricing, website, marketing, message. ENO runs on minimal staff already and it neither likes nor could afford cinecasting. But most of the clangers, to my view, have been in the question of how they get the message across, or don't.

Round the corner from the Coliseum is the Royal Opera House, with its Tosca, its Trittico, its, er, La Sonnambula and its, ooh, Robert le Diable (if you're grumbling about turkeys, I've seen more of them there in the past couple of years than at ENO)... Christmas dinner aside, Covent Garden gets the Great Big Whopping International Names. It's the place you go to see Gheorghiu, Kaufmann, Calleja, Terfel, Stemme, DiDonato, Florez, Beczala, Pappano, Bychkov...

ENO can't compete with that - or so we'd think. Yet ENO has its fair share of stars too: Toby Spence and Sarah Connolly are regulars, Stuart Skelton's rise and rise has happened largely on the boards of the Coli, Sophie Bevan has become a meteor under their auspices, Gerald Finlay brought the house down in Adams's Doctor Atomic [right] - these people are among the best in the world. And of course they pop up frequently at Covent Garden too. As for Gardner, I find him one of the most exciting conductors in the country at the moment. The standard seems to be so high now that that is almost taken for granted. Should we not be told about this a little more often?

But with Covent Garden doing the big traditional productions - Copley's perennial Boheme, Zambello's Carmen - and pulling in the grandest names, ENO needs a different, distinct identity, a defined and individual brand. Now it has one, and it is in these adventurous, internationally-minded productions.The new audience Berry seems to want to reach is not necessarily the one for fabulous star singers, but the one for experimental theatre.

Now, if it is going to keep doing cutting-edge, European-style directors' opera, which people may not "like", and it doesn't mind if not everyone likes them, it has to do a better job of convincing its public that it is OK to go to something and be provoked or stimulated or disturbed by it, rather than necessarily liking every moment This isn't "blaming the public". It's a question of how to speak to them. That will be up to marketing, box office strategy, et al, and will mean cutting out misfiring or patronising schemes like the "Undressed" venture. It's quite a few years since the incident of Aida and the cut-out-and-colour paper dolls, but these things stick in the mind. 

I sympathise with ENO's aims, their integrity, their courage and their musical standards [left: Ed Gardner, who works a lot of magic]. I don't "like" everything they do, but I'd rather be surprised, startled and stirred than bored silly. And if they're boxed into a no-risks, please-the-crowds corner, all that creativity might go down the drain. They deserve support for their vision and their ambition and their achievements. (I mean, that's a lot of awards they've got. Really. It's not just me that's cheering for all this.) That doesn't mean failing to acknowledge that there'll have to be some changes.

In a way, ENO is a little hobbled by its original mission statement. It's gone beyond English or National. It could be better described as British International Opera. That in turn might raise and slightly shift our expectations of what they're about - if it's weren't for the likelihood of such a name being shortened to BIO. And opera in English? That's a topic for another time... 










Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Progress for the Pilgrim



Last week Delius in Wexford, this week Vaughan Williams in London: last night, ENO gave RVW's The Pilgrim's Progress its first fully staged professional performance since 1951.

Like Delius's A Village Romeo and Juliet, this is not just a remarkable opera, but a shamefully neglected masterpiece - and by one of "our own" in "das Land ohne Musik". Like the Delius, it is far from conventional; it doesn't do those things we tend to think opera ought to do, although there is no particularly logical reason for the artform to stick to them - in other words, it's light years away from La Traviata. Like the Delius, it is slow and gorgeous, mesmerising rather than melodramatic, exquisitely orchestrated, incantatory in its lines.

Unlike the Delius, though, its high points are its choral writing, its concise, well-chosen words - liberally peppered with extracts from the Psalms and spiced here and there with super-perceptive satire - and its deep, rich spirituality. While the story obviously is Christian, there's a universality to it - much enhanced by this fabulous production - that had me, and others, in tears several times. Vaughan Williams himself moved "from atheism into cheerful agnosticism", according to his second wife, Ursula. His faith, one senses, is music: "music in the home, music in the heart, music in the heavens..." as one particularly glorious passage says. He offers us a score containing a great-hearted warmth and wisdom that can bolster our inner strength in the same way that faith bolsters Pilgrim's. Read this excellent piece by conductor Martyn Brabbins on the opera's history.

Clever, brilliant, inspired ENO, putting this work on now. It's a parable for our times: the polarisation of spirituality versus materialism, and the destruction of the non-conformist who dares to speak his own truth against the corrupt rabble of Vanity Fair. The anguish of loneliness; the glow of beauty that attends support when it appears. And the final mortal terror of crossing over to the beyond.

Director Yoshi Oida offers a production of harsh beauty, simplicity and power. The setting is a prison and Pilgrim's inner journey - in essence, John Bunyan reflecting on his dream - takes him to the electric chair. The imagery is focused, the tableaux striking, the designs - set and videos by Tom Schenk, costumes by Sue Willmington - magnificent and imaginative, haunted by World War I, yet never heavy-handedly so. Apollyon, the ogre, is delivered via a piece of giant-scale puppetry that has to be seen to be believed. Magnificent performances by Roland Wood as John Bunyan/Pilgrim, Benedict Nelson as the umbrella-wielding Evangelist (and more), and vignettes throughout by a superlative cast culminating with Ann Murray herself as Madam Bubble, Mrs By-Ends and one of the three Celestial Voices. Brabbins and the orchestra - which has been possibly at its best ever through this year - give the score an account that is fervent yet balanced, translucent yet heady, drawing out the contrasts within the subtle progressions of emotion and letting RVW speak through with all his radiance.

Go see. Fast. There are only seven performances in total.

On the way home from the theatre yesterday, we heard the news that Elliott Carter has passed away at the age of 103. It's farewell to a remarkable man and creator of very different yet just as immortal music. May he reach the Pilgrim's Delectable Mountains and cross the deep river to peace.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

The naked opera-goer?

Undress for the Opera from English National Opera on Vimeo.

A lorralorra bitching this morning around social media re ENO's new Opera Undressed scheme. You guessed it: whaddya know, you don't have to dress up to go to the opera. You pay £25, you get the best seat, you wear what you like, you can download a synopsis beforehand (wow!) and you can go for drinks with some of the performers afterwards. They got Damon Albarn and Terry Gilliam to make the announcement yesterday.

OK, £25 is a very good price for a top seat. Otherwise...haven't we heard it all before? Only about 50000 times.

This business of opera being overdressed and stuffy and too pricey is outdated nuff and stonsense. You have to put it in context. And in the context of London theatre, pop concerts and sporting events, opera is mostly comparable in price, and often cheaper. Ditto for the bar prices - I bought drinks for some friends at a West End theatre during the Olympics and paid a scandalous £25 for three glasses of house white. Most ordinary theatre audiences seem to be over 44 as well; at Richmond last night for a spot of Alan Ayckbourn, I think I was the youngest person there. So what? We have an ageing population, and this will become more noticeable as the next years progress.

As for dress sense, I'd be terrified of turning up to a football match or a pop concert as a newbie in case I'm too old, being over 25, or am wearing the wrong thing. The pop/fashion crowd is a heck of a lot more censorious about the minutiae of one's dress sense than opera-goers, who, honest to goodness, don't give a damn as long as you don't actually smell.

I wasn't particularly aware that anyone does dress up much for ENO. I go to a lot of press nights there and people turn up in anything from smartish dresses to jeans. I usually wear black trousers and a reasonably nice top, which is what I wear most of the time in any case when venturing beyond the comfort zone of my study and pyjamas.

It's not ENO that needs to think of this. Covent Garden is much dressier and they are doing squeaksville. As for the Salzburg Festival...I wore my very best Glyndebourne gear and still felt as if I'd arrived in mountain boots, because there didn't seem to be an evening dress there that'd cost under £800, or a necklace that weighed less than 5kg. At Die Soldaten I chatted to the chap next to me. He was a car mechanic. He'd put on a DJ for the occasion. To him, it was part of the fun.

In the end, the dressing is in the windows. These measures are superficial. What needs to be addressed is the continuing existence of those preconceptions: how/why do people think all this in the first place?

It's a prejudice, and like all prejudices it springs from ignorance. They don't know because they don't go, and they don't go because in order to like music you have first to hear it. And hear it several times, and be familiar with it, and that happens via the radio and TV. Only it doesn't - not where classical music and opera are concerned, not in sunny old Great Britain. Unless the real thing is given regular, prominent air time on mainstream television, ie BBC1, nobody is going to know that these art forms are there, let alone wonder what to wear to attend them. And they're not - only those dumbed-down "reality" or "talent" shows and Apprentice-like contests. (But for possibly a very wonderful opera now and then on Christmas Eve.)

Result of this philistinism? Most people are missing out on some of the most wonderful things in the world. Everyone deserves good music in their lives, of any type they desire. Everybody, being human and having, presumably, a soul, deserves to have that soul nourished. Nobody should ever be fed the idea that they are "not good enough" to be able to appreciate great music. It's there for everyone, and today more plentifully than ever before, if you know which button to press. But if you never hear it, you won't know it's there. The problem isn't just snobbery - it's also inverted snobbery. I'm not convinced the second type isn't the worse one.

That's what needs to be addressed: music and opera in the media, in the environment and in education, as a proud and celebrated part of our own multifaceted culture. Which it is. Sod the dress sense.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Strewth! Papageno gets a proposal

Duncan Rock and Rhian Lois as Papageno and Papagena

So it's opening night at ENO, they're doing The Magic Flute and at the moment Papageno counts to three in case a girl will agree to marry him before he hangs himself...someone does. A lady in the second row put up a hand and said "All right!"

The hunky baritone Duncan Rock, recipient of the RPS's new Chilcott Award (in memory of the late soprano Susan Chilcott), kept admirably calm and carried on, but made sure to give this unexpected fiancee a round of applause at the end of the opera. 

The Magic Flute - the fairy-tale that becomes magically deeper the lighter it is - had meanwhile fizzed by in a feast of that gorgeous Mozartness that has made this my favourite opera always and forever and confirmed it in that status yet again. In short, it evokes the way music can protect us through life's most terrible trials, and the way those trials strengthen the bonds between lovers. Never has it felt so true. Its profundity within that feathery touch is comparable, to my ears, only to the comedies of Shakespeare.

It's the last revival of Nicholas Hytner's classic production that has run since 1988. Our friends at What's On Stage suggest that something interesting may be lurking in the works by way of a new take. We're watching that space.

Meanwhile the well-chosen cast made the most of the fun, with plenty freedom to turn it their own way - "Strewth!" shouts this very Australian Papageno, spotting the snake. Shawn Mathey is a full-toned Tamino, Elena Xanthoudakis a powerful and charismatic Pamina, Robert Lloyd holding the stage and the low notes as the stringent 18th-century patriarch that this production makes of Sarastro. Rhian Lois as a Welsh Papagena joined Rock for the delicious upward ride in the Papageno family nest, complete with seatbelt [pictured above - photo credit: Alastair Muir/ENO].

Luxury casting for the Three Ladies with Elizabeth Llewellyn, Catherine Young and Pamela Helen Stephen. The Three Boys were superb. Everyone's favourite character, The Queen of the Night, was an admirably ferocious and focused Kathryn Lewek. And Boris the Bear - one of four cuddly furballs who pad out of the woods to enjoy Tamino's flute recital - is on Twitter as @abearnamedboris and has his own blog...

And in the pit, an auspicious presence: Nicholas Collon, kicking off the new season with his ENO house debut. The Magic Flute is no small ask, but he seemed nothing daunted; the pace never faltered and neither did the sparkle. If I have one little suggestion, it's to give it a tad more time and space here and there to let us breathe the emotion ever so slightly.

It's Friday afternoon, so here is a mega-Mozartian Friday Historical: The Magic Flute conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham in 1937. Click through to Youtube for the full cast.







Friday, February 10, 2012

In search of the spirit of Hoffmann

It's a fantasy world here in London this morning. Everything has turned white. A suitable setting for a fabulously fantastical evening courtesy of Offenbach, ENO, director Richard Jones and a cast headed by the doughty Barry Banks as ETA Hoffmann. But why do so many of the musical creations based on this seminal German Romantic author have so little to do with what he actually wrote? Is he just...too damn scary? I have a piece about this in today's Independent. But below, please find the director's cut, in which Schumann comes to the fore rather more than Offenbach.


First, here's the trailer for tonight - it's a co-production with the Bavarian State Opera. I just hope the transport system holds up under our massive and alarming 2cm of snow.






Where would we be without the stories and novels of ETA Hoffmann? The German author’s dazzling imagination underpins some of the world’s most popular and enduring operas, ballets, and even piano music. Yet there’s a real disconnect between Hoffmann’s influence and the adaptations we see on stage. Few of them bear much resemblance to his originals. Indeed, the writer’s absence from his own legacy is so striking that Richard Jones, the director of English National Opera’s new production of The Tales of Hoffmann, has apparently recommended to his lead tenor, Barry Banks, that he need not read the tales by Hoffmann on which the opera is based.

That could seem surprising – after all, the hero of Jacques Offenbach’s opera is loosely modelled on the real Hoffmann. But perhaps it is a practical matter: so vivid and terrifying are these seminal works of German Romanticism that our star singer would risk having nightmares for weeks.

The opera – about to open at the Coliseum in a co-production with the Bavarian State Opera, Munich – features Hoffmann as a dissolute, drunken poet looking back over his thwarted love affairs and finally finding redemption in his art alone. Three stories are involved, each concerning one of three women, Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta, each with an ‘evil genius’ figure who puts Hoffmann through a series of supernatural tribulations. Olympia is an automaton, made to appear real when Hoffmann dons magic spectacles. Antonia dies in his arms after her mother’s ghost persuades her to sing, against medical advice. Giulietta, a Venetian courtesan, steals his reflection, and implicitly his soul. Every tale is based on a Hoffmann original. Yet Hoffmann’s actual writing is so disturbing that the operatic version, despite its gripping narrative and unforgettable music, can barely scratch the surface.

We seem little concerned with the real ETA Hoffmann today, beyond specialised academic studies, but his significance was multifarious and profound. His life – contemporaneous with Beethoven – was short, difficult and tragic. Born Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann in Königsberg in 1776, he adored music obsessively, to the point that he changed his ‘Wilhelm’ to ‘Amadeus’ in tribute to Mozart. His family background appears to have been unstable, rife with mental problems; perhaps his imagination was predisposed to become fevered. He lived a turbulent existence, moving between Germany and Poland, working variously as a clerk, a jurist and a music critic, writing and composing prolifically the while. He became “dissolute” and syphilis killed him when he was only 46. The writer George Sand said of him: “Never in the history of the human spirit has anyone entered more freely and more purely into the world of dream.”

So why do the popular adaptations of his works veer so far from the originals? The Nutcracker, that ubiquitous Christmas ballet, is a case in point. It presents a supremely simplified version of a tale in which the “world of dream” is deeply entangled with that of reality. For balletic purposes, the most potent and horrific elements of Hoffmann’s Nutcracker and Mouse King are stripped away; in their place the audience sees infinite sugar. Hoffmann himself had dreamed up, among other things, a seven-headed mouse king that sets gruesome traps for its own offspring. Not so great for family viewing, perhaps.

Then there’s Coppelia, second only to The Nutcracker in popularity: a sweet, frothy story about a youth who becomes infatuated with a doll, inducing his girlfriend to take good-natured revenge. Set to irresistible music by Léo Delibes, it is based on the same Hoffmann tale as the Olympia episode in Offenbach’s opera. Yet the original story – The Sandman – couldn’t be less sweet and frothy if it tried. It involves murder, madness, blinding and the manufacture of eyes, as well as the recognition of the darkest and most destructive side of the human psyche, all of it conjured with imagery so potent that it impacts upon our subconscious at an almost primal level. It can be no coincidence that Sigmund Freud made considerable reference to this story in his essay The Uncanny, describing Hoffmann as “the unrivalled master of the uncanny in literature”. Incidentally, Freud associated the terror of losing sight with the fear of castration.

The composer most faithful to the underlying spirit of ETA Hoffmann was Schumann, who did not use the actual stories at all – though this arch-romantic’s tragic life, with its descent into syphilitic madness, reads almost like one in itself. He frequently took inspiration from the author: Fantasiestücke, Nachtstücke and Kreisleriana are all titles used by both creators. The turbulent, mercurial atmosphere of Schumann’s piano cycle Kreisleriana catches the tone of Hoffmann to perfection, although there is no programmatic link.


Hoffmann had given the name ‘Johannes Kreisler’ to a sort of alter-ego that finally became a character in his last novel Lebensansichten des KatersMurr (The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr) – in which the autobiography of a savvy feline is accidentally mingled with that of a temperamental and introverted musician. The young Johannes Brahms, another passionate Hoffmann aficionado, sometimes signed himself ‘Joh. Kreisler Jun.’ (Johannes Kreisler Junior), including on his official Op.1, the Piano Sonata in C major.

Offenbach’s choice of Hoffmann as the basis for his last opera was a less personal matter, but no less telling. Towards the end of his life, though celebrated for his riotous and risqué Parisian operettas, he yearned for recognition as a serious composer. These stories provided the ideal medium. Perhaps, too, he was able to identify with a different aspect of the anguished hero; as a German Jewish immigrant in 19th-century Paris, he had perforce remained rather an outsider himself.

The opera involves a feast of musical joys – among them the brilliant coloratura aria of Olympia the doll, the hero’s duet with the doomed Antonia, and Giulietta’s seductive Barcarolle. Hoffmann’s various loves are sung by the same soprano (for ENO, it is Georgia Jarman), while the three “evil genius” figures are likewise portrayed by one bass (Clive Bayley). Barry Banks, as Hoffmann, takes on a notoriously demanding yet rewarding role.

Sweetened for palatability, simplified for stage presentation and all but forgotten in the shadow of the great music they inspired, Hoffmann’s stories and their profound psychological truths remain immortal in their own way. At least Offenbach gave him the credit he deserved. It is high time that we did so as well.

The Tales of Hoffmann opens at English National Opera on 10 February. Box office: 0871 911 0200